“The Perfect Cappuccino”

(a film review)

Indeed, it’s more than just a cup of coffee!

Though it’s a beverage, a commodity, and a consumer-good, there’s something about coffee that is fundamentally personal. It’s something you share, you meet for, and that has been bringing people together for hundreds of years.

Amy Ferraris captures so much of this in her documentary “The Perfect Cappuccino.” The title would presume a documentary about the pursuit of a certain cup of a certain coffee drink, but as is inevitable whenever someone takes a closer look at it, coffee is so much more. From so much shared about her own personal experiences, to a critical look at Starbucks and its influence on coffee around the world, from the Third-Wave coffee movement, to Brian Franklin and his Tulsa, Oklahoma shop, Doubleshot Coffee Company, Amy takes the time to tell the story she wants to tell, with some of the most interesting stuff coming from her interviews with baristas and coffee professionals in Italy.

I met Amy back in 2006 when she was working on this film, and I’m ashamed that it’s taken me this long to get around to watching it. It’s through the miracle of technology, specifically the iTunes Store, that brought “The Perfect Cappuccino” into my home in a few simple clicks. Both Trish and I were really happy to have seen it, and we strongly recommend that you watch it as well. For anyone who works in, or is really interested in coffee, it’s absolutely required viewing.

Perfect Coffee?

At last year’s SCAA annual Expo, the keynote speaker was George Ray McEachern, a professor of horticulture at Texas A&M University, focusing much of his research and study in wine. He used a particular phrase during his speech which absolutely fascinated me, especially as we often compare coffee and wine: “Perfect wine.”

He kept saying stuff like, “We (in the wine industry) used to have ___ problem, but we fixed it by ___, and now the wine is perfect.” There’s an almost visceral reaction that follows a comment like that. “Perfect?” How could he possibly be so obtuse as to declare wine to be “perfect?” Clearly there are different quality levels in wine, not every wine scores a 100 points (on any scale), and there is obviously much improvement that is still plausible and possible in wine, at every step in the process. Just like coffee!

But that’s not what he means. What he means is essentially that wine is now mostly defect-free. Even low-priced wines, while perhaps not the most earth-shattering in flavor, exhibit all of the baseline qualities that what you’d call “good quality wine” should have. Processing-related defects are mostly non-existent. Technology and technique have discovered the sources of the defects, and technology and technique have resolved them. Hence, today, you have perfect wine.

I had never thought of it that way before, but while it takes a little bit of shifting-of-gears mentally, it really makes total sense. In our world, where a 94-point score makes you wonder what’s wrong with it that it’s not a 100-point score, “perfect” is impossible. “Perfect” is a Holy Grail of sorts, never to be achieved but forever to be pursued.

Perfect wine does not mean that it will all score 100-points. Defect-free is perfection of a critically-important sort, but it still allows for different quality levels within it. You can have a Honda Civic and a Mercedes S-Class, and if both are mechanically perfect with no defects whatsoever, you could call them both perfect. It does not have to mean that they are equal in quality.

So obviously, the next question becomes, what is “perfect coffee?”

Right away, even if one were to accept the idea of perfect wine, many will resist the idea of “perfect coffee.” Indeed, despite all of the similarities between coffee and wine, they are also very different. Wine is commonly referred to being about 30 years ahead of coffee in development, and the growing and processing of coffee has much farther to go before we can declare coffee to be “perfect.” But that’s not to say individual coffees can’t be perfect.

Grow perfect coffee. Process perfect coffee. Source perfect coffee. Roast perfect coffee. Brew perfect coffee.

For us in the consuming-world, it starts at sourcing. There is still a great deal of defect to be found in green coffee supplies of renown specialty coffee roasters. Defect must be eliminated from what you do. Roasting defect must be eliminated. Brewing defects must be eliminated. Every time a specialty-coffee professional accepts defect without identifying it as such, it holds the industry back.

This will, somewhat obviously, require for specialty coffee professionals to learn to identify defects in green coffee, in roasting, in roasted coffee, in brewing, and in brewed coffee. But often, someone will allow over-ferment and instead call it “fruity.” Someone will have roasted coffee with scorching and tipping and call it “tobacco-finish.” Someone will taste an over-extracted coffee and call it “complex.” Each time this happens, it holds the industry back.

It really can be perfect.

19.1 Is The New 20.0

Cross posted from my Google+

The prior literature on coffee brewing tends to use mass units for coffee (grams or ounces), and volume for water (liters or fluid ounces, sometimes gallons or cups). Granted, you’ll see teaspoons or tablespoons used sometimes, but none of those are really trying to be scientific.

Lavoisier’s Law of the Conservation of Mass teaches us that mass is a constant. Volume depends on density. If density is a constant, then you can effectively treat volume as a constant in that particular case. In the case of coffee brewing, the density of water is not a constant. Water density decreases at higher temperatures. I have this particular web page bookmarked for when I need to calculate water density at a particular temperature: http://antoine.frostburg.edu/chem/senese/javascript/water-density.html

So when you say “I’m brewing coffee with one liter of water,” if you want to be precise and/or want to use this data to do some coffee brewing math, you need to know what temperature that water is. At room temperature, let’s say 20°C (68°F), one liter is 998.2 grams per milliliter. At 93.3°C (200°F), it’s 963.1 grams. The density decreased, and a given mass of water will expand in volume as it’s heated. This is true, and undisputed.

This is a fact that Vince Fedele has pointed out to the world by integrating it into the ExtractMojo (and MojoToGo) software. Both pieces of software, therefore, uses mass for water instead of volume. If you plug in a volume measurement, it will use its own temperature-density calculator to convert it to mass, before it does its calculations. This a great thing!

So what’s the problem? The problem is, with new units, you have to adjust the chart.

Everyone is still using charts that all read 18-22% as the Gold Cup extraction yield zone. But the 18-22% zone was developed with calculations using volume, not mass, of water. Therefore if you change the units to mass of water, since there’s a density-based Δ (delta, or empirical change), you have to adjust the results of any calculations accordingly.

If using volume as your water number, the extraction yield zone of desirable taste characteristics “by the book” was 18.0-22.0%. Using mass and 93.3°C (200°F), the new corresponding zone is 17.2 to 21.1%. The “sweet spot,” if you’re trying to nail the middle point of that zone, is 19.1% extraction.

Therefore, 19.1 is the new 20.0.

Is Green Coffee > Coffee?

Why the obsession with green coffee?

Let me rephrase that. Why such relatively-little attention paid on the other stuff in coffee?

Off the top of my head, let’s make a list of ten major distinct areas directly involving coffee. Note: I’m intentionally leaving out important social, environmental, or ethical issues here. Let’s just look at the coffee for a moment:

Coffee growing & cultivation
Coffee processing
Export/import of coffee
Cupping & Quality Control
Retailing & Service

If you’re tempted to, don’t pick my list apart. That’s not the point.

The point is, how much innovation or “progress” in each of these ten areas have we seen in the past, let’s say ten again… ten years? Again, let me do this off the top of my head: on a scale of one to ten, for each one, let me assign a number rating the amount of advancement I’ve observed on a significant scale. 10 is high, 1 is low. I’m also going to re-order them in order of highest to lowest:

Export/import of coffee : 8
Coffee growing & cultivation : 8
Coffee processing : 8
Espresso : 6
Retailing & Service : 4
Brewing : 4
Cupping & Quality Control : 4
Grinding : 3
Roasting : 2
Packaging : 2

Looking back over my ratings there, I already want to re-think some of those, but I won’t. The specifics aren’t important.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why this is the case. Why the dominant focus on coffee-origin issues? There’s the obvious: coffee is grown, cultivated, processed, and exported from some of the poorest countries in the world. A major (if not majority) part of the limitations in coffee is due to just how much improvement potential there is in origin-work. It’s super-important work. This post is not in any way calling that into question.

But what about the low-rated stuff?

SCAA has a Symposium, now in its fourth year. There’s a tiny bit of consumer-marketing stuff at times, but it’s dominated by origin-specific content. The Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative (GCQRI), now renamed World Coffee Research, is also origin-focused. In Europe, you see ASIC, but the consuming-world content included is not the sort of stuff that pushes forward on the low-rated stuff up there in my list. It’s more mass-market company oriented information.

Perhaps those low-rated elements simply need less improvement, either because they’re already high-quality, or because they’re less important. Maybe. But I have some other thoughts. Three thoughts to be exact:

1) The “Helping The Farmer” Trap

The coffee farmers need our help. This is true. It’s also something people say far too often without any meaningful understanding about the actual farmers, what help they need, and how that relates to what you’re doing.

I might expound on this topic some more in the future, but for now: I think “helping the farmer” is definitely related to good intentions. I also think there’s some economic imperialism, subtle and inadvertent racism, and American/European exceptionalism involved. Okay, that’s some heavy shit I just threw down there, and I’ll do my best to get more into this topic in a future blog post.

How this relates to this particular post is that “helping the farmer,” in its myriad manifestations in our industry, gets the bulk of our focus because in many ways it’s the quick and easy answer to everything. “Quick and easy” is a relative term. I guess it begs: What’s not quick and easy?

2) What’s Not Quick and Easy

Of all of the consuming-world stuff in the list, the highest-rated is espresso. There have been undeniable advances in espresso over the past decade. I believe that the reason is two-fold: it’s because of the World Barista Championship (and its repercussions throughout the specialty coffee world), and because enough people were able to admit that their espresso could be better.

How does roasting improve? Perhaps first, you have to identify poor-quality roasting. Identifying poor-quality roasting, in our too-small fishbowl of a specialty coffee sector, is pretty much the same thing as identifying poor-quality roasting in specific companies.

You know what I’m talking about. Anyone reading this blog post who has been in the industry for more than a couple years has talked shit to someone about a peer-group coffee company’s roasting, baristas, roast or espresso or filter coffee quality, etc. But this criticism, no matter how confident you might feel about its merits, occurs in private.

“I think Wrecking Ball’s Yirgacheffe single-origin espresso that I tasted last week had clear indications of scorching and tipping. You should check it out, taste the coffee, and find out what Trish is doing to make that roasting defect happen.” If this were true (which it’s obviously not), and we lived in a world where such a statement was not insulting, risky, and bridge-burning, there’d be a ton of learning to be had by all. How often do I have a hand-brewed cup of coffee at a renown coffee shop, and having observed the barista at work, could give 5 easy tips to make that coffee taste better? Sure, I COULD, but I never would. To do so would be a slap in the face of friends and colleagues and a major violation of the unwritten social contract we live under.

Criticizing origin-related stuff is easy. They’re poor farmers. They don’t know any better. Criticizing each other, that’s really difficult, if not impossible. But thankfully, public disparagement isn’t the only way people learn. Too bad we don’t have the other way either.

3) No Coffee Education

There is no tradition in our industry of institutionalized coffee professional education. There is no culinary-school degree equivalent in coffee. Save a few isolated botany-related programs, there is no university education to be had in coffee. World-champion baristas can have worked for 10 years in coffee, and they likely don’t know something as fundamental as the chemical process of de-esterification of chlorogenic acid or specifically why coffee particle “fines” happen during grinding.

One might object, “But many successful chefs didn’t go to culinary school!” That’s true. But they live in a world where culinary school exists, and decades of traditions have established fundamental concepts and principles, and a culture and history that is the foundation of an industry. Some chef may have skipped culinary school, yes, but there was something there that they essentially tested-out of. They paid their dues and learned all if not most of that stuff a different way.

Our industry is full of creative, passionate people. That’s for sure. It’s also full of college drop-outs (like me). It’s full of people who work at a coffeeshop for two weeks and read a little of James Hoffmann’s blog and then they’re out droppin’ knowledge on everyone who can’t run as fast as them. It’s full of people who bought a 3-pound coffee roasting machine but have little to no training on how to roast coffee and get interviewed by the local newspaper and are now deemed the town’s coffee expert.

Someday, hopefully not too far in the future, we’ll have some real coffee education. Yes, there are multiple places in the U.S. that teach “coffee business,” mixing basic skills and information with business and management training, but even those are at the most 5-day programs. I’m talking about  something like a 2-year accredited degree or certification program. What would our industry look like if there were programs like that offered in a few places around the country and around the world? I would love to find out.

There needs to be a lot more researched, learned, taught, and improved in coffee varieties and agronomy and processing and such. Absolutely. But as I continue to meet baristas all over, I see passionate and intelligent people who are absolutely starved for some real learning that would support their careers. SCAA education is the best stuff out there right now, and it’s improved by leaps and bounds over the past 2-3 years, but it too still has a long, long way to go; and even then, I don’t know that this is a problem that SCAA is best equipped to solve. I think the market for formal coffee education needs to be developed. The conditions are more ideal for this sort of development in Asia than in North America or Europe, but that too is for another post someday.

So yeah. More focus on that stuff that needs more focus. More teaching. More learning. More skills development. More sharing. But over it all, more professionalism. But it’ll take one little baby step at a time. Etc. Etc. Blah-blah-blah. How are you supposed to end these blog-post things, eh?

pf.net > G+

I’ve been prodded to blog here more, so I’ve brought over a few recent Google+ posts and will now be posting more little bloggy stuff here. Again. You’ve been warned.

Water Torture Part 2

So thanks to coffee ingénue Ben Kaminsky, I got my water measured.

To recap: a couple weeks ago, our water was reading at about 40-50 TDS (total impurities), the ‘book’ says about 150 ppm TDS is ideal for brewing coffee, and my water is now reading about 140-150 ppm TDS.

Ben measured my water to be at 8 grains of hardness.
hardness = Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) content
1 grain = 17.1 mg/L (mg/L and ppm are about the same)
8 grains of hardness = 137 mg/L CaCO3
“the book” says 3-4 grains (51-68 mg/L) of hardness are ideal for brewing coffee.

So my CaCO3 content is really high. CaCO3 is an acid buffer, and sure enough, the coffee tastes like you magically removed most of the pleasing acidity. I guess I’ll use bottled water again until the utility goes back to producing harder water. Apparently our water utility has changed where the water is being sourced (this sort of thing is very common for high-population areas).

At this point, I have more questions than before:
Why does “The Book” say 3-4 grains is ideal? Why not lower, or _no_ CaCO3?
Why is it 150 ppm TDS ideal? How much of this is a valid rule-of-thumb, and how much of this is a lowest-common-denominator?

I’m finishing typing this up as I’m waiting for a couple cups of coffee to cool. As an experiment, I brewed them with distilled water. I’ve also reached out to some of my water-expert colleagues out there. Stay tuned, more to come.

<— photo of what happens when you have even 6 grains of hardness

They’re Not Coffee Particles

Was hanging out with young up-and-coming coffee superstar Alex Powar today, and while I was mouthing-off with some coffee brewing spiel, Alex added, “Yeah… I mean, we call them coffee particles after all…”

The general definition of a “particle” can be said to be an effectively one-dimensional thing. It’s a point in space. It’s a dot. The function of a “particle” (generally) renders mass, volume, and surface-area effectively irrelevant.

But a coffee ‘ground’ or ‘grind’ or whatever-you-wanna-call-it is not a one-dimensional point/dot. It’s a three-dimensional thing. There’s an outside and an inside. Understanding coffee brewing requires understanding the relationship between dissolution of the solids on the surface of the coffee grinds and the solids _inside_ the coffee grinds. The stuff on the surfaces dissolves quickly, and diffuses into solution as soon as it dissolves. The stuff on the inside dissolves a little more slowly, and needs to move through and out of the coffee grinds before entering solution.

In daily life, most everything that is as small as a coffee ‘particle’ is treated mostly the same: salt, sugar, sand, ground pepper, paprika, dirt, the size of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s brain, etc. These bits are small enough that the shape and size of individual particles are generally inconsequential in most common situations. There is, however, growing awareness of the size and shape of salt crystals, including research by food scientists trying to figure out how to make a saltier-tasting NaCl crystal in order to reduce sodium consumption in certain foods (notably, potato chips). But I digress.

Coffee bean fragments are not “particles.” They’re small, but the size and shape are indeed consequential… at least if you want to make good coffee.

So the question is: what do/should we call coffee bean fragments if not “particles?” Unless someone has a better idea, I’m going to start using the term “coffee fragments.”

Water Torture

Normally, I’d be happy with a water TDS reading like this. I’m not right now. Why? Because it’s the water at home, and one week ago, it was 40ppm TDS, which is 100ppm less exactly one week ago.

About 140 ppm (parts per million) TDS is, according to all the relevant literature, about ideal for brewing coffee. With our the ~40ppm water (we live 30 minutes south of San Francisco), I’ve dialed in my coffee brewing to fantastic flavor. Juicy acidity, sweet, balanced, fantastic. 40ppm is supposed to be a bit low, but it’s been great.

I made coffee on the morning of January 1st. It was (again) juicy, bright, and sweet. I made coffee that same evening for a couple friends. The coffee tasted embarassingly flat, and while it had most of the sweetness, it was missing the juicy-acidity, like as if the tweeters on my audio speakers suddenly cut out. (Perhaps) needless to say, my technique is very dialed-in with my home-lab setup.

My mind raced through all of the variables. I’d been brewing with lower water temperatures lately… maybe I needed to pump things up to higher temps? Tried that… no dice. The grinder is fine. It was the SAME coffee… could it change SO much in 8 hours? No way. So what could change all-of-a-sudden like that?

I had lent my Myron-L water conductivity meter (pictured) to a friend, but I got it back from her yesterday because I had to assume something had changed with the water coming out of our taps. Sure enough, it was 100 ppm higher than my last measurement.

Still… if 140 ppm is ideal, why can’t I get (any of) these coffees as delicious as I know they can be? Perhaps the nature of the 100 ppm could reveal some clues? I mean, if that +100 ppm (or mg/L if you wanna get more nerdy) of impurities are made up of more neutralizing or buffering compounds, it would make some sense. I’ll be doing some more testing. Stay tuned!

addendum to the Bests of 2011

Best Musical Performance In Coffee 2011:

Bests of 2011

Instead of a top-5 or 10 or whatever, how’s about just a list?

Best Burger I Ate All Year : Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea Pasadena Cafe, December 7, 2011, because it was just fantastic. FYI, I had a fair number of burgers this year.

Best Thing I Ate All Year : Table coal-grilled Hanwoo beef at Moo Deung San, Seoul, Korea, November 24, 2011 because it’s the best beef I ever ate.

Best O.P.C. (other people’s coffee) : Intelligentsia Kenya Tegu 2011 (mid-September 2011, roasted in Chicago)
(FYI, Trish’s was: Kaffa (Norway) Honduras Finca Moreno (mid-November 2011))

Best Coffee Blog : Roaster Project because I appreciate the blogger’s sharing his journey with us as he’s learning and experimenting and designing and building. Sharing is good.

Best Coffee Tumblr : TIEBoys Kittens Coffee and Coffee Crotch Shots.

Best coffee-person’s Flickr Feed : Three Sevens because it’s a great mix of coffee pics, personal stuff, and just the right amount of Instagrammy content (not too much, not too little).

Best non-coffee Filckr Feed : TIE: Red and Jonny and Nightmare Fear Factory

Best Coffee Twitter : TIE: @cKronman@devinpedde because they’re both smart, funny, and not self-promoting.

Best TV show : TIE: Game of Thrones & Homeland (yeah, snobby premium-cable shows, I know)

Best Media Coverage Of Coffee By The Lame-Stream Media : CNBC’s “The Coffee Addiction”

Best coffee iPhone app : (this space intentionally left blank)

Best Climate By Government Test : Redwood City, California

Best Overhyped Company in Coffee : Handsome Coffee Roasters because nobody could possibly live up to the amount of hype these boys got? Make no mistake, HUGE love and respect for Handsome and what they do, but the coverage left such a mark on our retinas that it feels like they had a reality-show this year, even though they were never on TV.

Best Underhyped Company in Coffee : Gimme! Coffee because they’re doing way more awesomer coffee and admirable stuff this year than the push they got in the industry.

Best IT-GIRL of specialty coffee : Julie Housh

Best Coffee Video : “Betty’s Coffee”

Best Coffee Gadget/Gear : Baratza Virtuoso + Esatto

Best Humongous Multi-Story Roaster-Retailer Shop : Sightglass Coffee

Best Barista Objectification For A Great Charity : WBC Champion 2012 Calendar

Best Shortest Coffeeshop Name : I Do, Seoul, Korea

Best Groan-inducing Coffeeshop Name : Seventh Wave Coffee, Seoul, Korea

Best Coffee Industry Event : Barista Guild of America Camp Pull-A-Shot

Best Sprudge.com Post : #YesEqual

and the 2011 Official Best Phenomenon in Coffee: The Guest Barista Shift because the concept of the guest-shift quietly came into its own this year. From random reports from around the country and around the world, to the BGA EC doing guest-shifts throughout PDX, the idea of a barista traveling to a shop that they do not work at and… well… work, is a remarkable thing to be sure. Not only does this reveal a certain amount of trust among peoples, it also means that there’s enough skill out there that it’s even possible. Imagining such a thing happening just a few years ago is ludicrous, and now it’s everywhere. And completely under-the-radar, as if it was always supposed to be like that. I can think of little else that is as much a display of passion for the craft as it is a symbol of the best parts of the barista community and specialty coffee, for the reasons stated and for many others. It makes my heart happy.

See you in 2012!